Quick, you've got three seconds. What's your takeaway?By Burkey Belser
February 11, 2016
I was chatting with some creative team members the other day about art direction. What's effective. What's helpful? What's hurtful and discouraging? Every Art Director wants a good answer to that question.
There are three requirements that every great design must satisfy: great idea, great design and great attention to production detail. We do all three before a piece heads out-the-door, but sometimes with added serious emotional cost and time wasted. Most designers feel injured when their work is criticized. It makes this business a tough one. Nevermind that you are criticizing the work and not the designer. That's no help when the designer has their ego completely invested in their work. Great designers, mature designers have a thick skin; that is, they don't take everything personally. They divorce themselves from the work in order to clearly see what they’ve produced. But to bring young designers and copywriters along, before you critique anything, ask them a simple question, "Quick, you've got three seconds. What's your takeaway?" That question seems to put everything in perspective. It shows what we are seeking—a way to put our work in perspective, to gain some distance on it so we can look at it objectively.
It seems to me that all of the problems with a piece show up when asking that question. For example, if the message isn't clear, you'll know immediately. Much of the problem with our work-in-progress is that: (1) we are off-message (even slightly off is too off) or (2) the message is literally not visible–that is, it doesn't jump out at you.
Off-message? That's the Big Picture, usually expressed as a headline and a graphic image. We experienced being off-message recently with a set of client ads (I could pick any project, but this one is recent). We had inventions NEAR that brand message but none that was dead on. If you were to look at some of the versions along the way, you can see the problem immediately. "No, that's not it.” “No, not it, either”. “That one?” “Close, but no cigar." We could do this same analytical exercise again and again with our work. Ask, “What's your takeaway?” Well, what's it supposed to be? If you don't know, you're not ready to design anything. The designer can actually use this tool to art direct themselves!
Message not visible? That's classic issue number two for us. Doesn't really matter whether it's an ad, or a website or a spread from a brochure. We're on-message but the message is lost in a headline that competes with other copy, or other visuals or a fractured layout. The result? Visual confusion. No takeaway. By the way, we can do this with illustration as well.
Bottom line: you can save a lot of emotional distress and lost time simply by asking, "Do I get it immediately?" Even three seconds is too long. If we answer that question, then we can quickly clean up the rest----choose the better colors, improve the typography, etc. Do you want to know why clients always say, "Make the logo bigger"? Because for them, that's a key takeaway!
You can actually use this question to drill down into the details of a page. Look at a paragraph of type. "What's your takeaway?" “Why is this important?” Thoughtless design can defeat the reader at every step. We often say that good design is really not any different from good manners. For example, will a boldfaced lead in to that graph encourage the reader to read more? Would bold subheads make it easier to scan the type across the spread? Have I made it easy for the reader to get the point? Ask that question every time. And be prepared to answer when someone asks, "Quick, you've got three seconds. What's your takeaway?"